Naman Ramachandran’s Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography (to be released on December 12) traces how the life of a humble coolie who worked as a bus conductor before becoming one of the most famous people on the planet and an Internet meme. These exclusive excerpts chronicle Rajinikanth’s initial foray into films.

As luck would have it, Shivaji’s turn to face the camera for the first time came on a Thursday, much to his delight. But first, the business of his name had to be taken care of. There could be only one ‘Sivaji’ in the south Indian film industry and that was the senior actor Sivaji Ganesan. K. Balachander did not cast about long for a screen name for Shivaji Rao; he chose a character name from his own film, Major Chandrakanth. A.V.M. Rajan had played a character named Rajinikanth in the film, and Balachander christened Shivaji Rao with this name. And thus was born Rajinikanth, soon to be a household name. The name literally means ‘colour of night’; it was a comment on the colour of Shivaji Rao’s skin.

Ever the contrarian, Balachander was casting Rajinikanth against type. ‘In those days, no other director would select a boy who was very dark, for any type of role,’ he remembers. ‘Even for a small role, they’d not take a dark chap. I am quite dark, you know. My father was even darker than me. So, I thought, why not introduce a dark-complexioned fellow as a new character? Especially as the main villain? And it worked out. It worked out wonderfully.’

It was on a full-moon night, on Holi, the festival of colours, that Balachander christened Shivaji Rao as Rajinikanth. Both actor and director remember this vividly. On Holi day every year, Balachander thinks fondly about his famous discovery. For around eight years after his debut, Rajinikanth would make an effort to meet or at least speak to his mentor on Holi day. This tailed off gradually as he got bigger and busier. The actor is apologetic about this today, and says he has never forgotten that magical day.

Balachander vividly recalls those early moments when history was in the making. ‘It happens, you know,’ he says. ‘Sometimes you aim for it. If you aim for it seriously, you succeed. Of course when I introduced him in Apoorva Raagangal, it was only a small role, but people would remember him because he comes in the climax. So I thought, I’ll give this particular role to him.’

The Thursday of shooting dawned. It was 27 March 1975. Balachander, with some foresight, realized that Rajinikanth would be good at making an entry, and the shot was suitably dramatic. In a low-angle shot, B.S. Lokanathan’s camera is at ground level, looking up at a pair of closed gates. A dishevelled-looking Rajinikanth, sporting a stubble and wearing an ill-fitting suit, flings the gates open and strides forward. The frame freezes and the Tamil text ‘Shruti Bedam’ (A Variation of Pitch) appears on the screen.

Contrary to some reports, the future Superstar’s very first shot for the silver screen was not approved in one take. ‘That first shot of the gate opening was shot five or six times,’ says Satyanarayana. ‘It was excellent! Even the onlookers remarked that this new find had style. But who was he, they wondered. It created a flutter.’

During the initial phases of shooting the film, Rajinikanth was finding the going difficult and was constantly being instructed by Balachander. The comedian Nagesh, one of the stars in the film, observed the newcomer’s difficulty. He called Rajinikanth over. ‘He said, “Don’t get tensed up. Just imitate whatever Balachander is doing. That’s what I’m doing as well!” says Rajinikanth with a laugh. ‘After that it became easy for me. If you look at Nagesh’s comedy and his timing, it’s a replica of Balachander’s. He was Balachander’s first disciple.’

***

It is worth examining a puzzling feature of Rajinikanth’s character in Apoorva Raagangal. Posterity, and indeed Balachander himself, describes Pandiyan as a villain. However, in revisiting the film, Pandiyan does not appear as a villain; in fact, he comes across as a saint. His villainy happens off screen, in the past, when he decamps for parts unknown after impregnating Bhairavi.

When he returns, it is as a man who knows that he has but a few days to live and wants to make amends. For the duration of his presence in the film, Pandiyan commits no villainous act. Rather, he voluntarily agrees to stay away from Bhairavi when he finds out that she is happy with Prasanna. Certainly, Pandiyan is shown smoking and drinking, as villains often did on screen in the ’70s. However, the affluent Mahendran is also shown smoking and drinking in the same bar at the same time, and the venue is upscale, not a dive. Pandiyan, then, comes across as a man in search of redemption. In many ways, he is actually one of the characters that draws utmost sympathy in the film. It would be a stretch to call Pandiyan a hero, but his deeds in Apoorva Raagangal, at least on screen, are quite heroic. In refusing to respond to Prasanna’s repeated violence against him, Pandiyan displays the Gandhian quality of non-violence. A villain would have reacted violently. Three things that happen immediately after Pandiyan’s death conclusively prove that the film doesn’t see him as a villain. First, mournful music swells on the soundtrack, of a kind usually accorded to the death of a character who elicits sympathy; second, Bhairavi wipes off her sindoor, like a widow would after her husband’s death; and third, Pandiyan’s dead fingers are found to be clutching a note that says his last wish is to see the raga and taala meet, a clear reference to the proposed joint performance of the singing Bhairavi and the mridangam-playing Prasanna. So, Rajinikanth did not debut as a villain. He would play villainous characters in some of his forthcoming films, but not in Apoorva Raagangal.

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After completing his work on Apoorva Raagangal, Rajinikanth went back home to Bangalore. His director was satisfied with his work. ‘When I completed the film, I gave an interview to one of the Tamil film magazines where I said I was introducing a new boy, Rajinikanth. He’ll make a big mark in the future and you’ll be happy to see a man with a big future coming up,’ says Balachander.

The film released in Bangalore’s Kapali cinema, and Shivaji and his friend Raja Badhar went to watch the film. ‘Nobody knew that he had acted in a film,’ says Badhar. ‘We saw the film. When we came out, he started crying. I asked him, “Why are you crying?” He said, “I’m on the screen finally, I’m so happy. These are tears of joy.” I told him, “This is nothing. There’s much more to come, just you wait and watch.”’ The film duly completed a 100-day run and to mark it, Balachander held a ceremony to reward his cast and crew in Madras. ‘We both boarded a bus to Madras to attend the celebration,’ recalls Satyanarayana. ‘It was a glittering function and when they gave him his shield to mark the 100 days, it caused me great happiness.’ Satyanarayana had seen the film in Bangalore’s Sharada cinema. He had become particularly emotional during the film’s final song when Bhairavi spots the ailing Pandiyan. He thought his brother fit the role of a cancer patient perfectly and performed the part brilliantly.

Extracted from Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography, Naman Ramachandran, Viking (Penguin India), Rs 699.

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